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Essence of spring -- in a jar
Published: March 20th, 2008 01:26 AM Anchorage Daily News
Last Modified: March 20th, 2008 04:25 AM
The story goes that when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, they did so to the drivers of a caravan
from Gilead who were carrying a balm made from the buds of local trees. The balm reportedly had great
Lots of trees vie for the title of the tree that provided the Gilead balm. I am pretty sure our local
cottonwoods were not the source, but in modern times the heavy fragrance given off by cottonwood buds
as they open up in early spring is made into a mixture called balm of Gilead. If you are not familiar with the
smell, go out and get a few buds and roll them between your palms. The sticky oil produces the smell.
I know all this because last summer I swapped a copy of my book "Teaming With Microbes" for a jar of
homemade balm of Gilead. I was told it has great effect on arthritis hot spots, is an anti-microbial, soothes
muscle soreness and helps with chest colds.
Cottonwood balm may have some medicinal properties because the cottonwood is in the same family as
willow, the source of aspirin. All I know is that I had chapped hands, and it was great for that -- and best of
all, it smelled like spring.
Unfortunately, I ran out of my little jar of balm of Gilead, and the label has long since faded. What choice
did I have? I made my own. Turns out it isn't that difficult.
To start, go out and collect buds from downed limbs and branches or directly from low-hanging branches.
Trust me, it helps to harvest when it is below freezing (the colder the better) because the buds can really
produce a sticky oil. You will easily see why it was used as glue by early settlers.
Locate a Mason jar with lid and ring and fill it halfway with your freshly gathered cottonwood buds. Then
fill the jar to the top with olive oil. You are going to need to stir the mixture twice a day for the first week or
so, and it can get messy. Clearly, a plate under the jar is in order. Some folks use a paper towel or wax
paper in lieu of a lid because water released from the buds can cause an overflow. It seems to me that
the lid that came with the jar makes more sense. Just don't screw it on.
During the soaking process, all the buds must always be covered with oil. They will rot if they are exposed
to air, and rotting buds won't provide the essence you are after. Eventually, the buds will settle to the
bottom of the jar; this can take a week or so. Once this happens, you need to stir only once a day for a
few weeks. The result is a fragrant oil that, once strained of the buds, can be used directly as an oil or
added to an unscented cream and used as a salve.
I am going to start a second jar this weekend, but first I am going to send my buds through a food
processor so they are chopped into little bits. Seems to me that this would release more oil and do it
Either way, it will smell like spring.
Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at
www.gardenerjeff.com or by joining the "Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on
KBYR 700 AM.